One of the words often associated with the Spurs is system, which suggests that there's a rigid structure that shapes everything the Spurs do. Most people know that the Spurs have used a motion offense since Pop started coaching them, which seems to confirm the idea of continuity and orthodoxy. Yet it would be obvious for even the most casual fans that the Spurs' offense from eight years ago has very little in common with the offense that they run now, at least when it comes to specific sets. How did they make that transition? How did Pop figure out what tweaks were needed?
I've been interested in those questions for a long time but never thought I'd get an answer from the man himself. And then a few days ago J.R. Wilco sent me the audio from the pre-game Q&A that Pop had recently. Someone asked Gregg Popovich those questions. Here's what he answered:
"It's a motion offense. It's malleable. It's ever-changing, in the sense that when players are moving and the ball is moving, sometimes things happen on offense that you didn't even plan on, that players just do, and it becomes part of the offense. Other things, coaches may concoct them over in an offense because you watch enough film and you try to manipulate something and it becomes part of the offense. But basically, back in the late 90s, Brett (Brown), Bud (Mike Budenholzer) and I, and coach (Hank) Egan decided how we wanted to play, what kind of offense we wanted to use and we decided on a motion offense and put in the basics. And each year we would tweak it a little bit ourselves, we'd add something we saw the players do. So it evolved and continues to evolve. It doesn't stay exactly the same but the base is always there"
Learning the Spurs Playbook
The gears are always turning in the Spurs motion offense, and the many variations of the off-ball screen are a huge reason for the team's success.
What Pop says makes perfect sense. He starts out with a malleable offense and then shapes it to highlight his player's strengths. When Duncan was an unstoppable monster on the block, the priority was to get him as many post-ups in the game as possible. And with defense and post offense being the two focal points, the Spurs slowed their pace to a crawl. Since decreasing possessions makes each one more precious, he trained his team to value every touch, and the deliberate walk-the-ball-up-the-court Spurs won championships by out-executing their opponents.
As Duncan aged, the focus shifted. First Manu and then Tony became more important for the offense. Pick-and-rolls were San Antonio's bread and butter, and spacing was paramount to the success of the attack. When Duncan's range on defense shrank and Bruce Bowen retired, the personnel wasn't there to make the defense as terrifying as it had been, so the Spurs had to win with offense.
Now, after years of creating an extensive playbook that is simultaneously complex and intuitive, the Spurs have gotten to the point where they can start their offense by using a multitude of different sets. Perfectly choreographed off-ball screens and hand-offs have become Spurs staples and have allowed them to continue to score at a high rate, despite featuring defensively-oriented players who often have limited offensive skills. The evolution has been astounding.
Anyone that hopes to have a long coaching career in the NBA makes adjustments, except for a couple of coaches who seem to be committed to rigid offensive systems with an almost fundamentalist fervor (looking at you, D'Antoni). But the changes that Pop has introduced to the Spurs' offense have been so profound that, when compared to the offense that the Spurs ran in their championship years, what they do now seems like an entirely different system. The Spurs have swiveled their offense on the fly, relying on the same core players and, oddly enough, the same coach. And that's not common.
Pop claims that what players do has helped shape the offense and that seems accurate. There are some routes on motion weak sets that only Patty Mills seems to run. Some of the counters that the Spurs use when opponents try to deny a route a wing is taking had to come from the way that players naturally dealt with those situations. And as mentioned, the emergence of guards as difference-makers -- not to mention the rule changes made since the Spurs' first championship in 1999 -- forced the system to become more perimeter-oriented. That explains why some of the plays the Spurs have run in the past have been retired or replaced by other more effective alternatives.
But equally important is how the Spurs seem to be willing to change a player's playbook when they develop an ability they hadn't displayed before. For a recent example, look at how Boris Diaw's new-found aggressiveness changed the way the Spurs use him. Last season, Boris was mostly a spot up shooter and pick and roll dive man. This year he has seen an almost four percent increase in plays he finishes in the post, going from just 13% to 16.9%, according to MySynergySports. That's not a coincidence. The Spurs are using some of the same plays that they use to set up post-ups for Duncan to get Diaw in position.
It's this adaptability that has allowed the Spurs to continue to be great despite seeing a lot of roster turnover since the times of The Admiral. Great team building is not just about bringing in players that fit the system. It's also about adjusting the system to fit the players. The Spurs seem to know that, and Pop has been flexible when it comes to incorporating new plays or new roles into what the Spurs do. If a player does something unplanned that works, or if he shows he can consistently be successful while trying something that was not supposed to be a part of his skill set, the Spurs incorporate it into the offense.
"I think competitive character people don't want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It's a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people...", Pop told Jeff McDonald of the Express-News. And despite a carefully cultivated public image of a stern disciplinarian and perfectionist, he practices what he preaches in that statement. "It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform. The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs. Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain."
That doesn't mean players have the freedom to try anything. We've seen Pop scream at players for messing up countless times over the years and we've seen him yank players for not executing. So the balance is delicate. Improvisation is encouraged only within a framework that is already in place. The system can be bent but not broken. As Pop says, "You gotta play the right way."
Around this time of the year, talk about awards starts to heat up and Pop's name has understandably come up among the favorites when discussing candidates for Coach of the Year. If history is any indication, he won't win --despite being considered by most to be the best coach in the league. And I don't see a contradiction with that. What makes Pop great is his focus on long term, sustained success. That's not accomplished in a year. The way the Spurs have played this season is the result of a process that started long ago. It's a process that's still going.